The Kickstarter campaign for Richard Dawkins: Evolution launches today, and I was lucky enough to sit down with both Professor Dawkins and the game’s developer Gordon Ross to explore what they’re doing.
The game’s goal is modest - £50,000 - but the ambitions here are grand. So I start by asking how one man, albeit with freelance help, can build something on this scale.
“Initially I was looking at a probabilistic model, modelling, and a system probably more like I would imagine No Man’s Sky operates, you know, where it’s procedurally generated in a sense,” says Ross. “Whereas in this instance what we’ve done is we’ve moved to-, interestingly, you know, Richard mentioned the book Climbing Mount Improbable. It just so happens the technology we’re using to achieve this is by a company called Improbable.”
“So the tests I’ve just done last week, for example, Richard would testify to the earlier prototypes we’ve had running on the desktop, which had a population of around five hundred, and we ended up with coral-like creatures and flying creatures and all sorts, just from the basic starting point. And those would evolve. The way we had it set up just now, those would evolve over maybe three hours or something. But now I’ve got a population of thirty thousand, running in the cloud, so they break off and migrate and, you know, can go over vast distances and become isolated and all of this type of thing. Interesting things happen as the population scale gets bigger.”
One thing I’m curious about is exactly how evolution is observed - presumably you’re not just sitting around watching creatures mate and raise very-gradually changing offspring.
“Imagine it’s an MMO environment, so you’re running around as these little robots, which, you know, effectively don’t evolve, and it’s more like you’re on safari or you’re Charles Darwin going around collecting specimens. So if you see something you like, you kind of clone a copy of it and keep it in stasis.”
So you collect these things, or copies of them at least. Pokemon vibes. But the next step that the creators envisage is community involvement in what is a nakedly scientific pursuit, but a potentially fascinating one - categorisation.
“So you’ve kind of got a big collection, and it’s up to you to then name them, describe them, to work with the community that will be finding their own things and say, ‘You know, I think this is a grouping of creatures that share these traits, and I think that these should be classified under one umbrella, and I think that these ones are, you know, different from this superficially similar one.’ And of course then you’ll have arguments saying, ‘Well, I don’t know, it looks like there’s a blurred line between this type and this type.’ So really you’re a kid on safari, and also you are a curator and a collector of what you find, and then it’s up to you to argue your case and pool knowledge within the community.”
You can also farm the creatures, in a sense, using those you’ve kept copies of to conduct your own experiments or, as Ross says, “mess with things a little.” But what really interested me about this project from the start, when Ross first mentioned the idea, was the potential educational impact of the game.
“Yes my objective is ultimately is to get it in front of as many young minds as possible,” says Ross. “So that they stand a chance to understand where they come from and they’re not the process of some magic. We can actually begin to understand some of the mysteries of our origins, and in understanding that we’re then able to look at the world in a particular way and understand everything else in much more clear terms. I’m not saying we can understand everything about the world by any means, but that is my ultimate goal.”
“It’s realism – I want people to understand what’s really in the universe and what isn’t really in the universe and try and think in that way. So yeah, it’s about shaping young people’s minds and I want it out in front of as many people as possible, especially in the American education system, and I absolutely abhor the idea of intelligent design creeping back in there and clouding the waters.
I just think – even in my own life, when I was eight years old... it was... I still wasn’t quite sure if there was a god or not a god or how any of that or how we came to be here and stuff like that and I think... I’m only on the planet for 70 years or 80 years, so that’s ten per cent of the time I was being led in this direction that clouded my understanding of what else how the world really works. And that pisses me off, it’s like a form of abuse. Not malicious abuse but…”
Your sympathy with this perspective may differ, but it’s important to remember Ross is talking mainly about the US educational system here - where religion plays an undeniable role in repressing science. Normally when we talk about this, we talk about textbooks. What can a game do?
“In a textbook, unless you then go and get practical with it, there’s no experiment you can perform yourself,” says Ross. “Whereas with a game you can test and extend some of your theories on the bounds of things within them.”
We all know this to be true: something in our minds works beautifully well when we see things play-out in front of us. We’re much more capable of grasping ideas that we see operating, and videogames are nothing if not accumulations of systems that can show these ideas in operation. Richard Dawkins: Evolution might not give Activision any sleepless nights, but let’s hope it has more of an impact in Alabama.